The silver parachute drifts down, almost serenely, to the girl from District 3. Hera. Her name is Hera. She catches and immediately pries it open, pulling out the little container of medicine.
Finnick always liked the parachutes, as much as he could like anything about the arena. They mean security. They mean staying alive for a little while longer. More importantly, though, they mean that someone cares.
He twists the rope in his hands into a knot. The rough little threads catch against his skin, reminding him of his own presence. The end goes through the loop. Wrap it around itself once. Pull tight at both ends. He stares at the unrecognizable tangle in his hands. He ran out of real knots ages ago. He doesn’t even pay attention half the time anymore. The rope just flows between his fingers.
“Woah, hey, Annie, it’s alright!”
His eyes snap back up to the screen. Hera is kneeling on the ground, helping her sit up. She’s shaking. She’s looking wildly around, almost coiling like she’s ready to spring away from an attack. She jumps to her feet, reaching for a knife that isn’t there.
“Sebastian.” It’s a question. Hera points to the boy. He’s curled up on the ground, still holding his sword like his life depends on it. Oh, wait, Finnick reminds himself. It does.
“He tried to stay awake for as long as he could, poor kid,” Hera says, half-forcing her off her shaking legs, back onto the ground. “I told him I’d wake him up when you did.”
Hera hands her a canteen and walks over to Sebastian. His blond head pokes up. As soon as he sees her, he’s wide awake, and Finnick feels himself breathe for the first time in… hours? Days? It feels like it’s been a lifetime. It’s almost like that time she saved him from drowning, when….
He picks his rope up off the ground. He hadn’t even noticed when he dropped it. He smoothes out the knot between his hands and begins to work on a real one, to really focus on it. But then he hears her voice, and his eyes are back up to the screen.
“Where are the others?” He should be sending her some kind of message, something to let her know that she shouldn’t look so nervous, but for the moment he’s just relieved to see her conscious.
“Hunting,” Hera tells her, pressing some bread into her hands.
“For food,” Sebastian adds. He seems to be firmly planted at her side now that they’re both awake. Finnick’s cheeks burn white hot before he remembers who he is and who she is. He adds another loop to his knot.
Overall, he’d have to call himself grateful for Hera and Sebastian. Hera is Beetee’s tribute. Anyone trained by him is always more than capable in the arena, but she’s also smart on her own. Sebastian may not be the brightest, but he’s a fighter, and he’s also invested in her. Her….
“Cresta,” he murmurs, and flings his rope to the ground, so he can bury his face in his hands.
He’s not even sure, at this point, how long it’s been since he last slept. Definitely not since she went into the arena. Maybe not even before…. His cheeks burn again. He can’t think about that night, or her, not in that way.
Even if she makes it out of there alive, he’s still Finnick Odair. He’s property of the Capitol, and no one else. He can’t ever forget that.
A hand on his shoulder pulls him out of his train of thought, and he doesn’t have to turn to know it’s Mags. Her hand has been on his shoulder since he was a kid. He turns his head to look at the only parent he’s ever known.
She smoothes her hand down his cheek and points vaguely behind her, towards the door that leads down a long hall to the mentors’ rooms.
“I’m not tired,” he says. He weirdly isn’t. He hasn’t slept in days, at least, but he feels wide awake.
“You are.” He looks up from where he’s sitting, just in time to see Mena crouch down to his level. “You’re exhausted. Look, they’re both fine. It’s barely even the end of the first day.”
He glances back up at the screen. There’s now a good-sized fire at their campsite. The other careers have returned, and are now roasting a few small animals for dinner.
“I can’t go,” he says, slowly and quietly. “What if something happens?”
“They’re all in a group now,” Mena says. “None of the other tributes will try anything tonight. You know that. And if something does happen, we’ll handle it.”
She smiles her big, fake, bubbly Capitol smile. It’s the only way Mena knows how to be comforting. But it just makes Finnick feel worse.
He looks back to Mags, who’s looking at him like he’s ten again and refusing to eat his carrots. He’s seen that look a million and a half times. When he was little, he thought it just meant he was in trouble, but after he became a mentor, too, he understood. She’s not trying to be scary, and she doesn’t want to punish him or anything. She’s worried. He lifts the corner of his mouth in a vague attempt to smile and puts his hand, gently, on her shoulder.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll get some sleep. But I’m not going to the room. I’m staying right here. And if anything happens during the night, wake me up.”
Mena rolls her eyes, but Mags pats his cheek.
She isn’t speaking today, which drags him, however momentarily, out of the quickly darkening arena. Ever since her stroke, her speech has been hit or miss. Sometimes she speaks almost normally, sometimes she barely says a word. It’s been a long time since she’s had a day like this, though, where she doesn’t say anything. She’s nervous about something, or upset.
Finnick hugs his knees up to his chest and rests his forehead against his legs. The anthem starts playing over the speakers. Six cannons go off. He looks up, one last time, at the screen, at her face gazing up at the sky. He watches her eyes darken as each passing tribute is projected once more across the arena and every side screen in the room he’s in. Her whole face stiffens.
Now she looks like a Career, he thinks, before his head hits his knees and he’s asleep at long last.
The next morning comes quickly and too bright, after a dreamless sleep, as usual. Finnick is sprawled across three seats. His ribs ache when he pushes himself up into a sitting position. He can barely even move his neck. He’s just slept more than he has in a long time, but he still feels exhausted. More than exhausted. It’s like every part of his body is exhausted. It’s seeped down into his bones, and, weirdly enough, keeps him awake at night.
Finnick tries to stretch, but just ends up curling his legs into his chest again. His body hurts a little less in this position. He props his chin on his knees and looks around the room for the first time, really, since arriving.
It’s early, or maybe really late, but either way, the floor is mostly empty. Rows upon rows of plush seats wind around a huge twelve-sided screen that makes up the center of the room. There are several large benches toward the back of the room, which Finnick wishes he’d seen when he was falling asleep. A long aisle cuts between the seating areas for 6 and 7, leading back to the mentors’ borrowed rooms. There’s an identical aisle between 1 and 2 that leads to the main entrance. Mena is clicking her way down that aisle now, balancing three large cylindrical containers in her arms. A large glass ceiling fills the room with light that is most likely not natural. The entire back wall is lined with banquet tables that are all full, right to the edge, with rich Capitol foods.
The room is nicer than last year’s. They didn’t even get padded chairs last year. It still puts a knot in Finnick’s stomach, though. It always does. He hates these waiting rooms. He hates having to fight so hard to keep people alive when they shouldn’t even be in danger in the first place. Most of all, though, he hates talking to the sponsors. Almost every single one is also one of his clients. Being forced to see them makes it very hard to pretend that they don’t actually exist.
He can suck it up this year, though. He can fight his instinct to scream until they leave. He can do it all for her… for Cresta… for….
He looks up at the screen in front of him. They’re capable of splitting into about eight different screens, but his is still whole. And, sure enough, there she is, still asleep, between Hera and Sebastian, clutching her injured arm. He lets out a deep breath that he doesn’t remember taking.
“Good morning,” Mena titters, sitting beside him. “Are you feeling better after getting some sleep?”
“Mostly,” he lies, rubbing his neck. She shoves one of the containers into his hands.
“Maybe that’ll help. It has a lot of sugar, don’t worry.”
He pulls the lid off, and the familiar smell of coffee floats up into his face.
“I needed this,” he says, taking a long sip. “Thank you.”
They sit silently for awhile, both drinking their coffee and watching their tributes wake up. Cresta makes breakfast for the Careers, meaning she passes out chunks of bread and whole huge apples that Cashmere managed to get from a sponsor yesterday. He watches her stretch out her arm and move it into awkward angles to test its limits.
“Way better this morning,” she says to Hera. “That stuff you put on it is awesome. Why isn’t that standard issue in the Districts?”
Finnick presses his fingertips into his forehead and shakes his head.
“Did she just say that?” Mena asks, dropping the Capitol act for once.
“She makes my job so damn hard sometimes,” he says with a groan.
Luckily for all of them, Hera is smarter. Or at least more tactful.
“Hey,” she says, turning to the rest of the group, pulling Cresta with her. “What’s the plan for today? Are we hunting for more food or what? There’s got to be bigger animals in this forest.”
The boy from 1 looks at her like she just suggested they all throw down their weapons and surrender.
“Why do we need to hunt for bigger animals?” he asks. “Small ones at night, sure, so we can keep going, but that’s what sponsors are for. They send us things we need. Namely better food than we’ll find in here.”
“It’s not a bad idea to at least look for food sources around here, though,” Hera says. “I mean, you can’t just count on sponsors to get you through this.”
“Maybe you can’t,” the girl from 2 says, shouldering past her. “Come on, guys. Let’s go get rid of some of the competition.”
The rest of the Careers follow after her.
“Come on, Annie,” Sebastian calls over his shoulder, but she’s hanging back with Hera. She picks up her belt of knives and straps it around her waist.
“Come on,” Hera says, gently. “They’re jerks, but we should still stick with them.”
She nods, and the two girls jog to catch up with the rest of the group.
“It’s going to be a long day,” Finnick murmurs, stretching back in his seat.
“Are you talking to sponsors again today?” Mena asks.
“Probably not.” He watches as she walks through the woods, one hand running along her knife belt cautiously. “We’ll watch her today, see how her arm heals, and make a judgment call in a few hours. I think she’ll be alright though. Even now, her arm is a little stiff, but it doesn’t look like it hurts anymore.”
“Where’s Mags?” Mena blurts out. She probably barely heard a word he said. He scans the room anyway.
“She must still be asleep.” He knits his fingers together to keep from picking at his nails. That isn’t good. Usually Mags is up early. Earlier than this, at least. She’s getting worse, he thinks.
Like Finnick didn’t have enough to worry about already.
Six people were dead by the time Annie woke up this morning. How many more will die today? Romana and Titus practically skip ahead through the woods. With all the noise they’re making, they may not even find any camps. Or so she hopes.
She stretches her arm back and forward again. The stabbing pain is down to a dull ache. What was a mangled mess of bone and muscle yesterday is a big swollen lump today. The medicine Finnick got her is beyond amazing, it’s miraculous. She’ll have to find a way to thank him before she dies in the arena. She just wishes she could thank him in person….
Before her mind can wander to the last time she was alone with Finnick, a practiced bird call from one of the others reminds her of where she is.
Someone found a camp.
Annie silently ducks down and runs forward, following the call, until it brings her face to face with Holiday.
“I think they’re from Twelve,” she whispers. “Look.”
She moves aside a few branches near the top of the bush in front of them so Annie can look into their camp. It’s just two kids. They both have dark olive-toned skin and black hair. She can’t hear them, but they’re both gesturing up into the trees.
“They’re discussing how to make shelter up there,” Annie whispers.
Holiday nods, only half-listening. They sit in silence for a few moments. Annie can’t see any of the others. She hasn’t seen Sebastian in hours, maybe. Not since they started walking. He went ahead with Ivory to scout. She stayed back with Hera.
“Okay,” Holiday finally says, turning to her. “I’ll give a signal, we all move in. Ivory is on the other side of the camp. He knows what—“
But apparently he didn’t know what. Before Holiday can even finish explaining her plan, Annie hears two screams, a handful of shouts, two cannons, and then nothing. Holiday stands and walks straight into the camp, over the bodies of the tributes from 12.
“Two for one!” Ivory woops, wiping his bloody sword on his pants.
“You stupid idiot,” Holiday snaps, shoving him hard. “We agreed, you’ll all follow my lead. You damn moron.”
“There were only two of them, bitch,” Ivory yells back, and he pushes her to the ground. “We didn’t have to sneak around. You may be here to play hide and seek with the other tributes, but I’m here to win.”
He offers her his hand and a smirk, like either of those things would be helpful to her. She slaps his hand aside and stands up.
“There could’ve been more. Do you remember the whole other group out to get us? We don’t know how many Districts are in that group, Ivory. Next time, wait for my signal. That means I’m sure we have the upper hand. Got it?”
He nods. His mouth is a thin line, his face bright red.
Annie watches as the blood spreads from both bodies, eventually becoming one large puddle, soaking into the dirt. She only half-listens as Ivory and Holiday yell at each other some more. Sebastian, eventually, is right next to her, wrapping an arm around her, telling her things she doesn’t hear. She just watches the blood pool spread in a slow circle until she hears her name.
“What?” she asks.
“What do you think we should do?” Holiday asks. Her face is flushed, and her hands are on her hips.
“We split up,” Annie says, keeping her eyes on the blood. “Just for today. We have to know what the arena has in store, at least roughly. We meet at the Cornucopia at sunset.”
Where did that idea come from? It bubbled out of her, like it was there the whole time. Holiday nods.
“Alright. Two groups. Ivory and Two, and I’m with you three.” She gestures to Annie, who’s flanked by Sebastian and Hera.
“Why don’t we do three groups?” Ivory asks. “By District. More or less,” he adds with a nod to Hera.
“Because there’s safety in numbers,” Holiday snaps. “Do you really want to argue this?”
Ivory shakes his head.
“Alright!” She claps her hands together. “You three go that way.” She points South. Or, at least, Annie thinks it’s South. “We’ll go the other way.”
They all nod awkwardly at each other, making promises to meet up in a few hours, and then the group splits apart.
The day is excruciatingly hot. Holiday and Hera strip off their jackets and tie them around their waists. Sebastian strips down to his bare chest. Annie keeps her jacket on, though she isn’t sure why. They walk for several hours and see only trees. Eventually, Holiday stops for a break and some lunch.
“How’s the arm?” Hera asks, sitting next to Annie and handing her a piece of bread. It’s soft and grainy and small. Maybe from District 3. Annie takes a bite. It’s semi-sweet and oddly filling.
“It’s alright,” she answers, finally pulling off her jacket. “It’s not fully better, but at least I can do this now.”
She rotates her arm in a big circle, wincing when her hurt muscles work. Nothing reopens, though, which Annie takes as a good sign.
“I should still put some more medicine on you,” Hera says, and Annie complies. She holds her arm out, resting her hand on Hera’s shoulder, who is pulling the little bottle of medicine from her backpack, when the cannons go off.
Two, right in a row, like the ones when Ivory killed the tributes from 12. Holiday is on her feet, right away, and sliding her sword back into its sheath.
“What was that?” Sebastian asks. “You don’t think it was the others, do you?”
“I hope not,” Holiday replies. “Come on, let’s keep going.”
Hera slips the medicine back into her backpack, and they all shoulder their packs to move on. After a couple more hours of nothing but trees, they come to a steep hill.
“There’s something at the top,” Holiday says. “A wall or something. Come on.”
Hera readjusts her backpack and starts after the blonde girl.
“You can wait here if you want,” Sebastian murmurs. “You should probably rest anyway, so your arm heals faster.”
“I’ve been walking all day,” Annie says with a small laugh. “This little hill isn’t going to kill me.”
It takes half an hour to climb to the top of it. Hera and Holiday are already there, taking long gulps of water, when Sebastian and Annie finally make it. The area at the top is flat and devoid of trees, but still in the shade because of the massive wall in front of them.
“What is it?” Annie asks, craning her neck to see the top, then looking to each side of the structure. “I think there’s a ladder that leads up it. Over there.”
“One of us should climb it,” Holiday says. “See what’s up there. I’ll go.”
“I’ll go with you,” Annie replies. Sebastian and Hera both jump to disagree.
“Annie, you’ll just strain it. It’s almost healed. Just let the medicine do it’s work.”
“Your arm!” Sebastian repeats.
“Stay here,” Hera tells her. “One of us will go with Holiday.”
“I can go,” Annie says, looking into both of their faces. “I’m not helpless. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Sebastian asks. Annie shrugs and looks into the sky.
“Maybe, with any luck,” she yells, “my mentor will get me some more medicine for when I get back.”
She smirks, and then turns to the ladder. Holiday is already about ten feet up.
“Hurry up, mermaid girl,” she calls down. “Unless fish can’t climb.”
She laughs at her own joke and keeps going. Annie starts up the ladder. She winces every time she reaches her arm up to grab another rung. By the time she’s halfway up, her shoulder is screaming at her.
“I should’ve listened to Hera,” she mumbles to herself, but keeps going. After awhile, she reaches the top. Her shoulder is throbbing.
“They were right,” she says to Holiday, trying to laugh it off. “I’ll be alright, though.”
Holiday doesn’t say anything, though, for once, and when Annie glances up, she sees why.
The concrete wall is holding back what looks like an entire lake of clear, glassy water. They can see the whole arena. It’s a bowl of mountains, stretching in a circle around them. The forest seems much smaller from up here. They can see the Cornucopia, the clearing around it still stained brown with dry blood.
Holiday doesn’t take her wide eyes off the water, though.
“It’s a dam,” she whispers, sitting on the edge of it.
“Are you okay?” Annie asks.
“I don’t know how to swim,” Holiday replies. “I’ve never seen this much water.”
Annie realizes she’s afraid. How strange, she thinks. I can’t imagine being afraid of water.
“Should we go back down?” she suggests, hoping that’ll help take Holiday’s mind off the lake. The blonde girl nods, stands up, adjusts her pack, and goes back to the ladder.
Climbing down is a lot easier, as long as Annie doesn’t look down. It feels like a few seconds before her feet are back on the dirt and Hera is grabbing a new silver parachute from midair to ice and clean and wrap Annie’s slightly swollen shoulder.
“This is a dam,” she says to Hera and Sebastian while Holiday drinks down half her water. “It looks like a whole lake is trapped behind it.”
Hera frowns but doesn’t say anything.
“Well, there’s no use standing around here doing nothing,” Holiday gasps after finishing her whole canteen. “It’s almost sunset. Let’s get to the Cornucopia.”
They move quickly down the hill, and towards the center of the arena. Strands of hair are plastered to Annie’s forehead with sweat. The trees cast huge, strange shadows across the ground. They grow larger as the sun shrinks away behind them. Holiday walks just a few feet away from her, but neither of them says anything. Annie saw her scared today, and that’s clearly never okay for someone from District 1. Sebastian is somewhere behind them, breaking lots of sticks and crunching rocks with his heavy footfalls. Hera is right in front of them. Her hair swings back and forth in its ponytail with every step she takes. Her bow is in her hand, an arrow ready to fly at any moment should it need to.
The trees begin to thin just ahead. Annie can see more light, and even a few glimmers between the trees. Two birds call to each other. Annie almost smiles.
“We’re almost there,” she says. She starts to walk faster, but Hera shoves her to the ground.
“WATCH OUT,” she yells, and then the arrow flies right into the heart of a tribute who was running right to them, ax in hand. They hit the ground hard and fast, any noise covered up by the cannon going off. Holiday jogs to catch up with Hera and see who their would-be killer was. Something is off about this scene, though.
“But why do that?” Annie asks out loud. Why attack a group of Careers, head on, when the tribute was alone? The hairs stand up on the back of her neck and she pulls a knife from the belt around her waist. She wheels around. Sebastian is sitting down and stretching out his legs.
“What’s going on?” he calls to her, and then everything happens at once.
A shadow moves from behind a tree, gliding quickly towards Sebastian, who doesn’t see it. Someone screams his name. The knife flies from Annie’s hand.